What makes an IT acquisition work?


As everyone involved in government contracting knows, an IT acquisition can work well or go horribly wrong. Determining what makes one effective and another a flop isn't always simple.

GAO released a report Nov. 21 that found nine characteristics in successful IT acquisitions -- success defined as achieving their cost, schedule, scope, and performance goals.

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In discussions with agencies, federal officials told GAO that their successful acquisition investments had active engagement of stakeholders, program staff with the necessary knowledge and skills, and senior agency executive support for the program, GAO wrote.

GAO studied seven investments, including the Treasury Department's Customer Account Data Engine 2 and the Defense Department's Global Combat Support System-Joint.

Of the seven, officials for each one cited active engagement as essential to an acquisition. Individuals and groups working on various aspects of an investment reviewed contractor proposals during the procurement process, regularly attended program management office sponsored meetings, and were working members of integrated project teams.

Similar to engagement within an agency, there's engagement outside of it too. GAO said both government officials and the contractors need to trust each other. Talking and dealing with stakeholders built that trust and also transparency, which ultimately increased support for the acquisition.

Officials from six of the seven IT investments said that the program staff's knowledge and skills were critical to success, GAO wrote. Employees need to know the acquisition process and how to monitor their contracts. They need to understand large-scale organizational transformations and agile software development concepts as it relates to the IT project. Employees also need to know earned value management and technical monitoring.

In addition:

  • Senior agency executives supported the programs.
  • Stakeholders and the people who would use the technology when it was finished were involved in developing the requirements.
  • Users participated in testing the functionality of a system prior to formally testing whether or not users would use it.
  • Government and contractor staff were stable and consistent.
  • Program staff prioritized requirements.
  • Program officials maintained regular communication with the prime contractor.
  • Programs received sufficient funding.

In addition, GAO said the Office of Management and Budget has helped in making more acquisition succeed. GAO mentioned specifically the IT Dashboard, a public website that brings attention to unhealthy investments, and the regular TechStat meetings, where OMB officials meet with agencies to talk about issues and programs.

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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Reader comments

Tue, Nov 29, 2011 Peter G. Tuttle, CPCM, NCMA Fellow

The GAO report reinforced that active Stakeholder involvement is key to success. Disgruntled or ignored stakeholders can torpedo the very best of projects and ensuring their buy-in, involvement, etc., will help any project proceed throughout its lifecycle. Besides, there are enough issues to content with on any IT project without having to fight with stakeholders....so bring 'em on-board and keep 'em on-board. Yes, this is easier said than done, but in the end the effort will be worthwhile.

Tue, Nov 29, 2011 AFRet05

I looked at the GAO report and can only conclude the old saying still applies: if at first you don't succeed, redefine success!

Mon, Nov 28, 2011 Jaime Gracia Washington, DC

Putting aside the other factors, having a skilled, trained and stable acquisition workforce is critical to success in any program, and more than now than ever. The acquisition workforce, especially in contracting, must be able to act as business advisors and really lead the way in helping shape sound business practices. This includes pre-acquisition through contract execution. The program manager, in addition to the use of Integrated Program Teams, also are critical to ensuring that everyone is building requirements properly, proper contracts and metrics are in place, and then of course executing using the sound business practices categorized in the GAO report. Regretfully, these budgets cuts and contract reductions can only be a detriment to implementing these best practices. With hiring freezes, reducing training budgets, and mandates to cut services contracts (such as acquisition support contracts), fewer opportunities will exist to improve performance. Coupled with the "low price at all cost" contract selection methodology, a thousand cuts are on the way to an environment of even further reduced performance, in addition to more fraud, waste, and abuse.

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